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Don’t F— With My Knafeh!

Dan Peretz // Haaretz

(Haaretz) — Danny Phillips’ knafeh place was supposed to satisfy practically every sector in this postmodern world of multiple identities and conflicts. There’s a menu based almost entirely on knafeh – one of the best loved of local foods – put together after extensive research, that gives pride of place to an ancient recipe. He uses local ingredients, including kadaif noodles made by a small local producer from the Nazareth area and cheeses from small boutique dairies. Prices are reasonable (“Knafeh is a food that makes people happy, so everyone should be able to afford to buy it,” declares the optimistic entrepreneur). And there are special items for vegans or customers with special health needs.

But there are those for whom the knafeh place Phillips opened in Jaffa’s Noga neighborhood exemplifies the bourgeois Jewish influx that is pushing some Arab residents out of the mixed city. And there is his audacity: Only an Englishman (Phillips was born in London in 1971) could come up with such completely unorthodox, savory versions of knafeh. Two dishes – knafeh with shakshouka (a nest of kadaif filled with Circassian cheese, tomatoes and egg yolks) and knafeh with spinach (a bed of noodles holds a mixture of feta cheese and spinach seasoned with sumac, lemon zest and cashew nuts) – aroused the ire of Hanin Majadala, a teacher of Arabic and an activist who lives in Jaffa.

The status she posted on her Facebook page on June 27 refers to both the Jewish-Arab and the Ashkenazi-Mizrahi conflicts, to the terrible crimes, in her view, being committed against the traditional dessert: “A post about how incredibly shameless Ashkenazim are. Knafeh. An Arab dessert. Not Mediterranean, not Mediterranean basin… Arab, asli, baladi, rasmi… the audacity and chutzpah have gone up yet another notch. Brace yourselves for Ashkenazi knafeh in Jaffa. The nerve, to open places selling Arab food and Arab desserts but with a Western twist. On the menu: Shakshuka on a bed of knafeh – so disgusting. No Arab would open a restaurant serving Ashkenazi food with an Arab twist, because we have self-respect first of all and respect for others, which you all are lacking. Nor are we lacking for good food, so we have no need to go out and adopt and steal the foods of others. And your food doesn’t taste good anyway.”

The status got 376 likes, 150 comments and 46 shares, and – whether for its bluntness or for how it underscored some painful issues – aroused a lot of stormy online discussion. The arguments that she and others raised related to socioeconomic matters, but also – as with the fierce debate over hummus and other Middle Eastern foods that are becoming part of Israeli cuisine – to issues of belonging and appropriation.

About the past

Skillet cakes, baked, fried or cooked on a flat surface over a heat source, are among the most ancient foods in history; variations are found in nearly every culture and geographic area. Until the 13th century, the words kunafa in Arabic and qadaif in Turkish referred to skillet cakes made of a flour and yeast batter usually filled with nuts, rolled or folded into a crescent shape and dipped in rosewater syrup. Descriptions of these spongy skillet cakes appear in tales of “The 1,001 Nights” and in other stories from the period. Then as now, the custom was to buy them from experts, not make them at home (kataif, one of the most popular sweets for Ramadan, is a modern incarnation of the same tradition).

Between the 13th and 15th centuries – scholars aren’t quite sure when – a change occurred, and now kunafa and kadaif refer to very thin noodles made from the same batter and used to make similar skillet cakes, which are also drizzled with fragrant syrup and dotted with nuts. The spoon that was used to pour a circle of batter on the hot cooking surface was replaced by a perforated ladle (some say this was preceded by a coconut shell); and then new types of metal pots were also introduced, with tubes on the bottom for pouring the batter, and eventually the modern equipment for making kadaif noodles. Food researcher Mary Isin, who tried to explain the evolutionary triumph of the noodles over the skillet cakes, ascribed it to their amazing texture and versatility: they can be used in a whole range of foods and desserts.

There are cookbooks and other writings recording the evolutionary development of kadaif-kunafa from Syria, Istanbul, Andalusia and other parts of the Middle East and Mediterranean regions. Knafeh, along with various kinds of baklava, became an inseparable part of the cuisines of Arab and Jewish communities that lived in these areas for centuries. The map of the modern world is made up of nation-states that, like the major religions, seek to create distinct cuisines that will define and distinguish their inhabitants from their neighbors. And before modern borders existed, ingredients and foods moved from place to place and culture to culture.

About the present

An unabashed optimist, Phillips doesn’t really get what the complaints are all about. “I never thought this would make anyone angry,” he says. “Her response – and I don’t know her personally – was truly one of the few negative responses. My customers are not only Jews, and not only neighborhood residents – I’ve had people come from Kafr Yasif and other Arab towns who had heard about this place and wanted to check out the knafeh, and most of them were crazy about it. I think sports, food and music are all ways to connect people, not to separate them, and when you provide a person with one of the three, it opens the way for an open discourse that’s not dependent on prejudices.”

Phillips, whose mother is an Israeli of Yemenite and Sephardi descent, and whose father is a Brit of Eastern European descent (“I believe in a good mix”), made aliya in 2007. In London he lived in Notting Hill and variously worked as the head of a fashion business and in the ranks of the kitchen brigade – alongside a British friend at the River Café and with chef Jamie Oliver. He also operated food stalls in London markets.

His knafeh quest led him to traditional bakeries in Nazareth, Yarka, Daliat al-Carmel, Jenin and Tul Karm. The current business started out as an experimental food stall in the market at Jaffa port, and six months ago moved into its present location in the Noga neighborhood. In addition to the classic sweet knafeh and knafeh with coconut and halvah, the menu offers savory versions in which the traditional bed of noodles (lighter and more delicate than most) is served with toppings like a cherry tomato confit or grilled sweet potato with fennel.

It’s not just the ingredients that have been freshened up, but also the cooking techniques. The various kinds of knafeh are served on small trays that were made in Hebron especially for this place (“We serve knafeh that’s prepared just when you order it, on individual trays, because the freshness and the heat are critical to the taste”) and baked on the spot over an open heat source, as is commonly done.

It’s hard to imagine another local chef, either Arab or Jewish, taking such liberties with this traditional food; if one feels close to something it may be difficult to take risks with it. But one can easily imagine chefs from abroad doing something similar and gaining wide acclaim for it. For really, why should knafeh dough be viewed any differently from that of pancakes, bread or pizza? And should food be called authentic – whatever the meaning of that hazy term – only if that means faithful and conservative adherence to old recipes, not allowing for a trace of originality or innovation? “The greatest thing about food, throughout history, is the way it migrates from place to place and changes over time,” says Phillips.

Phillips and his partner, Mati Tzadok, say that at this time, potential customers should call first to make sure their place will be open. Arab or Jewish, Ashkenazi or Mizrahi, many restaurants all over the country are now nearly empty, and in order to get through this difficult period are cutting back on hours and personnel. The Jaffa knafeh shop, like many other businesses in this mixed city and elsewhere in the country, is not open at present all through the day and evening as it was just a few weeks ago. For the time being, the hours are somewhat in flux, depending on the events of the day and the situation.

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